Happy Easter!

I will take a brief break over the holidays, as I’ll be busy with my Easter tradition – the GothCon gaming convention! Anyway, we still have snow here in Sweden, and everyone really longs for spring to come. The friendly soldier in the photo has picked a bunch of pussy willow twigs, so it appears like it’s the same time of the year there as here. In a couple of weeks, I’ll be off for the annual National Protection Force (“Home Guard”) manoeuvre, where I’ll don my Swedish Army uniform and  serve for a few days. I hope it won’t be as wet and muddy as last year…

Advertisements

Kome to our kosy Kantine

A regiment without a Kantine (cafeteria) would be a duller place. Here you could have a coffee or beer, have a smoke and play some cards. It was also a small store, where the soldiers could buy those personal necessities that weren’t part of the issued equipment. In the shelves behind the counter can be seen ink, pens, shaving supplies (razors, brushes), cigarettes, cigars, matches, postcards, inner soles, and other sundries I couldn’t figure out. This was the place to go if you hadn’t got evening leave, or if you didn’t want to hang out back in the baracks. The signs on the wall says that goods must be paid for (no credit), and:

Kantine. Geöffnet von 10 – 13 Uhr und von 18 – 21:45 Uhr

That translates as “Cafeteria. Open from 10 – 13 o’clock and from 18 – 21:45 o’clock”.

When I was in the Army, we had the “markenteteriet” near our barracks. It was a cafeteria where you could get hot or cold non-alcoholic beverages, pastries, sandwiches, and candy. There were a couple of pinball machines and a TV. It could be rather relaxing to kill an hour there after a day of training. Armies have been around for millennia, but the need to kick back and relax is just as old.

Trampling the free world under… uh, felt-slippered feet?

A soldier tending to his Knobelbecher (“dice-shakers”), the classic German Marschstiefel (marching boot), while wearing checkered felt slippers. The sole of the boot is clearly visible, with its toe and heel irons and 33 hobnails. There were 35-45 hobnails per boot, depending on size, but earlier boots had toe irons, which might account for the lower hobnail count. The jackboot was an iconic piece of the German uniform, with roots in the 19th century. The calf part of the boot was originally 35 cm high, but it was shortened to 29 cm in order to save leather. In 1941, the laced low boot was introduced as another measure to make leather stocks last, and the jackboot was reserved for infantry and other front-line units.

Marching 40-50 km a day resulted in many soldiers developing varicose veins, something veterans blamed the boots for. Still, by the latter half of the war, the jackboots were the sign of an Alte Hase (“old hare” – a veteran), and worn with pride. The hobnails – intended to make the soles last longer and to improve footing – had the unfortunate effect of leading the icy cold through the sole, which added to the frostbite problem during the cold Russian winters. If I’m not mistaken, the boots issued to armored vehicle crews lacked the hobnails, as they would increase the risk of slipping when stepping on metal plates of the hull otherwise.

In war movies produced well after the war, hobnail-counters can often spot German troops wearing Russian jackboots (no hobnails) or post-war boots (modern rubber soles). Finding well-made reproduction boots can be hard; expect to pay about 150 USD/Euro for a decent pair.

Leapfrogging

The four-man crew of a Schwerer Panzerspähwagen (Fu) (heavy reconnaissance car) Sd.Kfz. 232 8-Rad watches as bicycle-mounted troops pass by during the invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in 1940. The frame aerial indicates that the armored car is equipped with a medium-range radio set, which is why there’s the “Fu” for “Funkwagen” (radio car) in the designation. This vehicle in the Sd.Kfz 231 family was produced between 1938 and 1943; the frame aerial was replaced with a smaller star antenna in 1942. With a top speed of 85 km/h on roads, it was a capable vehicle for armored reconnaissance. The armament, usually a 20 mm automatic cannon, wasn’t intended for attack, but for returning fire if the vehicle ran into opposition. The vehicle is probably part of an armored division’s Aufklärungsabteilung (reconnaissance battalion).

The point of reconnaissance is return with intelligence, and not engaging enemies if avoidable. Traditionally performed by cavalry units, the motorization of the armies meant that armored cars, jeeps, and motorbikes were employed instead of horses. They scouted ahead and to the flank of advancing mechanized units to assess enemy location, strength and intention. Two or three armored cars would move forward in a leapfrogging fashion, with one vehicle moving forward while the other vehicle(s) covered it, and when the first vehicle had reached for example a bend in the road or some cover, it took up a position while the other vehicle(s) moved up.

If an Sd.Kfz 231 (or another vehicle in that family) ran into enemy fire, it had the rather unusual feature of having two drivers, one facing forward and the other facing backwards. The armored car could thus change direction without having to make a turn, which would otherwise expose its side to the enemy. If anything, it gives a new meaning to the expression “backseat driver”…

Seaside property

Half a platoon of soldiers – two squads – and the bunker they man. The place is somewhere on the coast of continental Europe, probably France or Denmark. The bunker is one of the more than 15,000 bunkers, fortifications, strongpoints and gun emplacements built by the Germans between 1942 and 1944, intended to stave off an Allied invasion. It was called the “Atlantic Wall”, but it wasn’t an unbroken chain of fortifications. As the German High Command didn’t know where an invasion would take place, there were bunkers all the way from the northernmost point of Norway all the way to the Franco-Spanish border. The heaviest defenses where in the Pas-de-Calais region, where the distance between France and Britain is the shortest. As we all know, the Allies let the Germans believe that they would invade there, all the while they prepared for the landings in Normandy.

The artillery installed was a plethora of captured guns from several European armies, which – with the many differing calibers involved – presented a logistical nightmare. The 300,000 troops manning the Atlantic Wall were mostly second-line units, usually older soldiers, or soldiers with slight health problems, or “volunteers” recruited from Soviet prisoners of war. They had low mobility, often lacking motor vehicles entirely, and little in the way of artillery. The defenses were not limited to bunkers, but consisted of minefields and obstacles, too. In the end, the defenses were breached in the one spot where it mattered – Normandy.

SAM_2667

When some friends and I visited Normandy for the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, we looked at several sites with German bunkers, like this one on Utah Beach in the photo above. The remains of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall are something for tourists to visit today, and a trip to Normandy provides ample opportunities for study of bunkers, a few of which have been restored and kept as museums and memorials over a time long gone, yet still present today.

Playing second fiddle

A machine gun crew of three soldiers taking it easy in the sun. Their weapon is an MG 13, a light machine gun that was adopted in 1930 and the standard LMG of the Reichswehr until 1935, when the MG 34 superseded it. It was based on the MG 18, and the designation “MG 13” was chosen as to make it appear to be an older design in the eyes of the Versailles Treaty Control Commission. When the MG 34 became the standard MG, the MG 13s were sold off to Spain and Portugal, and those that didn’t find buyers were put in storage. When the war began, second line units were equipped with it, and it saw use until the end of the war. It was also used in some aircraft and the PzKpfw I tank.

It weighed 10.9 kilos in the bipod configuration, and used 25-round box magazines, or 75-round saddle magazines. The small magazine capacity and the rate of fire of 500-600 rounds a minute meant that a magazine was emptied in 2.5 – 3 seconds. The magazines made it easy to use, though, and there were other comparable MGs that had similar magazine capacity, like the British Bren gun (30 rounds). In the photo, it’s seen with the long flash suppressor, but it was common to see the MG without it.

In the clip below, you can see how to fire it properly in short, controlled bursts. Still, it wasn’t able to supply the volume of fire that the MG 34 and later MG 42 could, which was the reason why it was replaced as a front line weapon.

 

Not so phoney

This undated photo might puzzle the casual observer, but it tells a story that’s not widely known even among WW2 buffs. Ten men, ages between 20-50 years, sit in a room with straw mattresses, the writing on the blackboard saying “Flüchtinge Westwall” (“Refugees Westwall”). What is it all about, one might ask? Here’s is my interpretation, but one that I’m pretty sure is correct.

The place is somewhere in the Saarland, a German state sharing a border with France, and the time is September 1939. The Saarland had been occupied by French and British forces between 1920 and 1935, as a result of WW1. When World War 2 broke out with the attack on Poland on 1 September 1939, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany a couple of days later. Allied forces took up positions along the border, which was weakly defended by the Germans. In fact, the German ammunition reserves would’ve only lasted for a couple of weeks, had the Allies made a decisive attack. As it was, eleven French divisions advanced a few kilometers into the Saarland on 7 September.

The area was defended by the German 1st Army, and the intent was to provoke the Germans to shift troops from Poland to the Western Front, aiding the Poles in their struggle. 20 German villages were evacuated. The Germans didn’t take the bait, and after just a week, the French forces withdrew back to the border. This was one of a very few offensive actions taken, after which the opposing sides contended themselves with glaring at each other across the border, entering the eight-month period known as “the Phoney War”. The German border fortifications were called the “Siegfried Line” by the British, but that name actually referred to a defensive line during WW1; the Germans called the line the “Westwall“. The fortifications were in no way ready in 1939.

So what about the men in the photo? They are probably from the villages evacuated in face of the French attack. Being of military age, they would’ve risked internment if they had stayed. But where are their families? It’s possible that the men were separated out by the German army, and ready to be conscripted into the army if need be. Some of them were probably called up, while others went back to work their fields. It would be another five years before war came their way again.